Milton A. Davis, 79, captured railroad era in photography, film

February 15, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Milton A. Davis, whose action-packed pictures dramatically chronicled a now-vanished era of American railroading, died Friday of pneumonia at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He was 79 and lived in Riderwood.

He compiled an archive estimated to number about 15,000 photographs.

Beginning in the 1930s and ending in the 1990s when arthritis made holding his Kodak 35 mm camera difficult, Mr. Davis traveled throughout Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia to record in black-and-white still photographs, color prints and motion pictures the end of the steam era and the rise of modern railroading.

Beginning in the 1940s, he was published in Trains magazine and, in later years, Locomotive Quarterly.

Mr. Davis was known as a friendly and willing contributor, who freely shared his work with authors and railroad historians.

His work was also the subject of two books, "50 Best of the Pennsylvania Railroad," and "B & O Salute," both published by Barnard Roberts & Associates. He also contributed many photographs to other books on the Pennsy and the B & O.

Mr. Davis was a quiet and patient man whose interest in railroading began as a boy growing up on Broadway in East Baltimore and was stimulated by his father, a streetcar motorman for the old United Railways.

"He was one of the earlier ones to get out on the line," said Herbert H. Harwood, a retired CSX executive, railroad author and noted historian. "In railroad photography, there is a split. There are those who go to roundhouses, yards and stations to photograph equipment, and there are those who go out and actually show what the railroad looks like. Milton fell into the second category.

"The quality of his work was very high and he was the kind of photographer who knew what he wanted and got it," said Mr. Harwood, whose book "Baltimore's Light Rail," published in 1995, contains a number of Mr. Davis' pictures. "He did a superb job documenting the railroad lines around Baltimore."

Mr. Davis was particularly fascinated with the big, brawny steam engines and electric locomotives, and the heavy trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad and its Northern Central Railroad subsidiary that connected Baltimore with Harrisburg, Pa.

Mr. Davis would load his young sons -- or friends -- lunches, thermoses of coffee and photographic equipment into his black-and-white 1956 DeSoto and head to a rail line for a day's shooting.

He would station himself along the N. C. R. R., the B&O, Western Maryland Railway, Canton and the Maryland & Pennsylvania railroads, photographing their glamorous express trains and mundane way freights.

"He was never too far from the sound of a [train] whistle," said his son Richard W. Davis of Riderwood. "As soon as one train went by, he patiently listened for the whistle of the next train. When he went to a new town, the first thing he'd find was the railroad."

"He was a talented historian and he leaves behind a great record of an industry and a region that we'll never see again," said Frank Wrable, a Pennsylvania Railroad historian and author.

Mr. Davis carefully cataloged and filed his photographs in cabinets in his study, which also was filled with books about railroads. In the basement, he kept model railroad equipment from his favorite railroads.

He was a member of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad Historical Society, the Pennsylvania Railroad Historical and Technical Society and the B & O Railroad Historical Society.

A 1937 graduate of Polytechnic Institute, Mr. Davis attended Lehigh University. In 1939, be began his career with the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland and retired from the plant engineering department in 1982.

During World War II, he served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific and was discharged as a staff sergeant at war's end.

In 1946, he married Margaret May Stroble, who died in 1992.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. today at Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.

He is survived by another son, M. Thomas Davis of Towson; and two grandchildren.

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